Many newly admitted students push asking for disability accommodations far down their to-do lists, choosing to focus on the logistics of moving and settling in. This is a mistake.
The best time to start the accommodations process is now. The process will be slightly different for each law school, but no matter where you attend, the earlier you start the process, the more likely you are to succeed at getting the supports that will help you rock your first year. The last thing you want is to worry about whether you should drop out after finals because of a problem that would have been moot if you had the proper supports in place.
Lock these services down as soon as possible because bar examiners will want to see a consistent use of them before granting certain accommodations for the test. There are ways around this, but the process will be easier if you have been using the accommodations from the start.
What Should You Do First?
Do a search on your school’s home page for disability services. Some universities have offices that oversee services for the entire school, but many larger schools will have program specific disability accommodations offices.
While you are on the disability services page, look carefully for deadlines. Look for any forms to request services. Follow the instructions on those forms, but also know that it is prudent to send an email to the listed coordinator introducing yourself.
I like to use a bit of charm here. The people who provide these services spend their days resolving occasionally prickly issues between students and professors who may or may not understand why they need to make certain accommodations. A bit of grace goes a long way.
Have You Considered All of Your Options?
I am deaf and have long had a firm idea about what accommodations I need in various settings, but I was surprised to see that my needs shifted a bit between undergrad and law school. You have to remember that law school is unlike anything you have ever done. The cold calls and the expectations professors have about how you will prepare for class are a new experience for most students.
I am a big fan of asking the disability services office to put you in touch with someone else who is going through the program a year or two ahead of you. This may help inform you about the realities of getting through a new academic world with different supports in place.
Do You have All of the Relevant Documentation Ready to Submit?
This is probably the most important step you will take. If you had accommodations during your undergraduate studies, get those documented. Ask your student services or disability services office for a letter detailing the services you had and why you had those particular services.
You will also need to gather your medical documents. This will look different for each law school. The disability office will want to see confirmation from doctors that you have ADHD, dyslexia, or any other disability that would require accommodations to level the playing field. If you have testing results such as audiograms or psycho-educational evaluations, gather those.
The more information you have up front, the smoother the process will be.
Have You Checked Your State’s Resources?
Some disabilities require more extensive equipment to make sure you have equitable access to academic settings. Every state has what is called a vocational rehabilitation program that is intended to help disabled people succeed in gaining employment. The programs vary slightly, but some will cover the equipment or services (such as hearing aids, transportation, interpreters, etc.) you need for graduate school, job interviews, and on the job. This is sometimes provided on a sliding income basis, which tends to work in favor of grad students.
Certain states do more. Texas, for example, has a complete tuition waiver for deaf and blind residents, which includes the state funded law schools. It is a good idea to reach out to your state’s agency to see what services you might have at your disposal. Some will even provide services for students who leave the state for law school.
This process can be time-consuming. The state agency will want to evaluate your need before determining which services it can provide, so as soon as you know you might seek them out, get in touch.
Are You Worried About Potential Stigma?
Asking for accommodations can be overwhelming. You may feel as though you are asking for an unfair advantage, or that you will be perceived as doing so. The stigma is real but unfounded. You are getting the same access to information as your fellow classmates. Anything less would be wrong.
You get to decide how much you want to disclose and when to disclose it. This is one of many ways that blind grading is your friend. Your professors should not know who is taking which exam, so even if you use extended time it will not affect your score.
There are many barriers to high achievement in law school. Disability is just one. Your classmates will come from a wide variety of socioeconomic, academic, and linguistic backgrounds, and each of those will pose its own challenges.
The disability services office is obligated to keep your information confidential. Some accommodations are impossible to hide, but others are easy to keep under wraps. Everyone knew my CART (real time captioning) interpreter by name, but no one knew who was getting extended time on tests. It gets easier every semester!
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